Arguments Against Materialism - Ch. 3 from "What is Philosophy?" by Jose Ortega y Gasset

Chapter 3 - What is Philosophy? - The "Theme of Our Times." Science as Mere Symbolism. The Sciences in Rebellion. Why is Philosophy? Exactness in Science and in Philosophic Knowledge. Postscript.


In chapter three, Gasset continues his critique of the cultural domination of physics that took place in the late 1800's and early 1900's. He talks more about its subsequent suppression of philosophy and the reigning scientific materialism which it bred. He then demonstrates that there is a layer of reality that humans seek answers to which is deeper than the physical world and its material causes can address, thus opening the door for philosophy as a perennial and necessary reality, even with all its shortcomings. 

The Necessary Framework - Is Truth Only Historical?

Ortega begins by pointing out that man is half himself and half his environment, so to speak. This environment which shapes him exists on a foundation which is so all encompassing that the axioms of that foundation are often not even realized by the people who live within them. Every age has assumptions about the world which themselves are taken as "given," but cannot be proven in a strictly demonstrative way. These assumptions are the roots from which every aspect of a culture grows. The problem becomes, if the axiomatic foundations of each age are different from the last, then does that make truth a historical and relative concept? That, Ortega mentions, is at the heart of what he sees as the philosophical question of his time. 

"...each era, or more precisely each generation, takes as its point of departure a set of assumptions which are more or less different from those that went before or will come after, this means that the prevailing system of truths and values - esthetic, moral, political, or religious - has an inexorable dimension in terms of history; these are related to a certain vital human chronology, they have value for certain men, and nothing more. Truth is historical. How truth can, and indeed must, claim nevertheless to be super-historical- not relative but absolute - is the great question." 

The Age of Materialism

What is the soil of our age that we are all birthed in? Materialism. It is the idea that there are no truths outside of the physical truths of the hard sciences. Of course, science has been successful by providing deductive certainty with the mind along with the confirmation of the senses, and with improving man's life ... but yet is the fundamental axiom of our age, that only scientific truths exist, a justified belief? 

Ortega says that we must examine truth, and our ability to know, to see if, indeed, there is a higher sense of knowledge than scientific. This happened to a degree when a crisis arose in Physics. When man discovered that Newtonian physics was only topsoil of a deeper layer underneath as Einsteinian Physics was emerging. As Physics was pushed into realms which go beyond man's everyday physical senses, scientists themselves were forced into a philosophical theorizing about the nature of reality which cannot be known directly, but rather only when certain points of intersection between the deeper realities and closer realities happen in our experiments. Even then, Ortega points out, one can conceive of vastly different systematic theories which both hold to the same few experimental data points. (Today we can think of the many schools of interpretation for the small about of data regarding quantum theory) 

"The experiment is a manipulation by which we intervene in nature and force it to respond to us. The experiment is not a matter of nature qua nature revealing herself to us in her own way, but only her specific reaction in the face of our specific intervention... the so-called physical reality is a dependent reality and not an absolute one; it is reality, a quasi-reality- because it is conditional and relative to man. In short, what physics calls reality is what happens if it executes a manipulation. Only in the operation of the latter does that reality exist."

Even the data points themselves of experiments are conditioned by man's mode of knowing. Physics is at its best, therefore, when it sticks to its proper role in determining truth at this one level of reality. It is the role of philosophy to "search out as reality that which is completely independent of any actions of ours, that which specifically does not depend on such actions; indeed, the actions depend on the fullness of the reality which is sought." Therefore, when science goes beyond its own proper mode and place of knowing, it is no longer science and becomes a philosophy. It grows its own axiomatic presuppositions and no longer is totally objective. It is a worldview with an "...idolatrous worship of the experiment...".

In fact, Ortega points out, if each discipline makes a metaphysics of itself, makes a worldview of its own principles, they themselves will all end up being contradictory of one another. He mentions an example of how the idea that geometrical laws could be subject to a new law of physics which breaks them, instead of vice versa, was unthinkable to many and yet Einstein showed that to be the case with his Theory of Relativity. Thus, the lesser sciences need to be subject to a common unity which is deeper than they are, philosophy. 

To unpack more why the sciences need to return to philosophy, Ortega sees it necessary to ask why man began to philosophize in the first place. He offers a third pass here in chapter three at the question, "What is Philosophy?"

What is Philosophy? - A Third Attempt

First, Ortega defines philosophy as, "... knowledge of the Universe." He says that philosophy does not approach knowledge about the universe within given parameters, segmenting off some part of the universe and contemplating it within already given axioms, rather it seeks to set itself before "everything that is." 

"...we do not know what that 'everything there is' may be; the only thing we think is a negative concept, namely the negation of that which would only be a part, a piece, a fragment. So the philosopher, in contradistinction to every other scientist, sets sail for the unknown as such. The more or less known is a part, a portion, a splinter of the Universe. The philosopher sets himself in front of his object in an attitude which is different from that of any other expert;

The universe does not tell us much. But the philosopher does know that, first, it is not the same thing as the objects within it; second, it is the only unified thing with nothing outside of itself; and third, that which we are "ignorant insofar as its positive content." The object of philosophy, then, is the whole universe as such. "... philosophy will consist in being the universal and absolute science which is sought for." Philosophy is the highest and most complete form of knowledge as it seeks to take within itself, its object, every level of reality as it contemplates the universe as a whole reality, as it tries to come closer to a perfect knowledge of the universe. 

"For this reason, when I define philosophy as knowledge of the Universe I propose that we understand an integral system of intellectual attitudes in which the desire for absolute knowledge is organized methodically." 

The role of philosophy in terms of seeking its goal is to show what is and is not possible with regard to that ultimate knowledge. And so why does man philosophize at all? Well because he naturally perceives that a unity of knowledge regarding the universe is possible, while the sciences only endeavor to map out small chunks of being, leaving the larger and unifying questions of life unanswered. In fact, one cannot live in the world as a moral agent acting and pursuing ends without making an "... attempt to possess a complete idea of the world, an integral idea of the Universe." One cannot help being drawn from the causes of many contingent realities to the "... first and enigmatic cause." Ortega continues saying, "Be it crude or refined, with our consent or without it, that transscientific picture of the world is embodied in every spirit; it comes to govern our existence much more effectively than does scientific truth." 

In critiquing the Materialism which has driven us toward Agnosticism in our age, Gasset replies:

"The past century tried very hard to rein in the human mind and hold it in check within the limits set by exactness. This violence, this turning the back on ultimate problems was called 'agnosticism.' Such an effort is neither justified nor plausible. That experimental science may be incapable of resolving those fundamental questions in its own way is no reason why it should behave like the fox with the high-hung grapes, should call them 'myths' and invite us to abandon them. How can we live deaf to the last, dramatic questions? Where does the world come from, wither is it going? What is the definitive power in the cosmos? What is the essential meaning of life? Confined to a zone of intermediate and secondary themes, we cannot breathe." 

Saying that these questions haven't been answered does not assuage man's hunger for them. The perennial questions of philosophy will never disappear from humanity. 

"What I mean by this is that we are given no escape from the ultimate questions. Whether we like it nor not, they live, in one fashion or another, within us. 'Scientific truth' is exact, but it is incomplete and penultimate; it is of necessity, embedded in another kind of truth, complete and ultimate, although inexact, which could be called 'myth.' Scientific truth floats, then, in mythology, and science itself, as a whole, is a myth, the admirable European myth."

An Existential Ache for Metaphysics  

Ortega concludes the chapter by referring to Aristotle. He continues on an Aristotelian vain that the being of things is different than "things." There is something distinct between the appearance and our vision of the world versus the being that sustains things and the world in existence. But then he departs form Aristotle's account of why we seek to know the true being of things. While Aristotle says that it is a natural desire for all men to know, Ortega disagrees and says that knowing the world is not the same as seeking deeper existential questions about the world, which are often pain in making any progress. In the end, our ability to know fails our desire for that perfect unified truth of the universe. Philosophy, then, is propelled on perennially by those existential questions which man lacks in his knowledge, and ones that he desperately would like to correct. 

Why does man philosophize? 

"Only Plato glimpsed the fact that the root knowing, its very substance we might say, lies in the insufficiency of human powers, in the terrible fact that man 'does not know.' Neither God nor animal is in this condition. God knows everything, and therefore feels no need to know. The animals knows nothing. But man is the living insufficient one. Man needs to know, he is desperately aware that he is ignorant. This is what it is useful to analyze. Why does man's ignorance hurt him, how can he feel the ache in a member he never had?"

Personal Take Away Thought  

I have been thinking more and more how what has been pushed on everyone as absolute truth in this day and age are really deductions from a worldview of Materialism. Whenever there are gaps in knowledge or understanding, it seems to me that often the leading thinkers will "fill in the gaps with what must have happened" based on their Naturalistic and Materialistic framework, and then proceed to push that as absolute truth. Think about how philosophers of religion or Materialist historians think about religion. "There is no God. Only natural causes can possibly exist. Man evolved over time. Therefore, all religions must be cultural expressions of social values which were made up to produce social cohesion or explain natural phenomena. Religion is an outmoded form of culture and philosophy. Therefore, religious people are dangerous today." If one takes a Materialist framework, that logic makes sense. The problem is the assumptions that lie at the root of the framework. How can science prove, scientifically, that only scientific truths exist? It cannot. Materialism cannot verify its own axioms. Therefore, step outside that lens of Materialism and a whole new world of possibility for truth opens up. In fact Ortega even mentions how one is necessarily drawn towards that ultimate and first uncontingent reality (God) as the explanation for every lower being and science. Ultimately, I think that Ortega is right, that philosophy seeks to take in the largest optic possible in answer to life's questions, and therefore should not be substituted for a physical science and its limited knowledge of one slice of reality with its given set of axioms. 


  1. Why can’t we let science be science? When it uses technology it can truly make life better. (I love my contac lenses and air conditioning). On the other hand, science is physical, and a part of us is not physical. Our bodies break down with age, but the other part of us is as young as ever. Philosophy meets our need for meaning and ultimate reality. (I won’t need contacts or air conditioning after I die!) it helps us ask the questions that can really satisfy our immortal part!


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